A Practical Guide to Prayer with Children

Posted on Jan 3, 2014 | 4 comments

A Practical Guide to Prayer with Children

(Sorry about the hiccup when this was initially published.  Something went wrong when I clicked publish and it deleted the majority of this post.  I had to go back in, re-do it, and publish it a second time.)

*This was originally presented via a live webinar in 2011.  I have slightly modified it in order to share it in a blog post format below.  Keep in mind that this is a lengthy post because it was a 45 minute live presentation.  If you would like to see any of the slides larger, click on the picture twice to enlarge it.  (Not a double click, but rather click on it once and then a second time when it shows the picture by itself.)

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I’m going to wrap up the conference this weekend with a presentation on “A Practical Guide to Prayer with Children”.  What do I mean by a practical guide to prayer with children?  Well…we are all busy.  Plain and simple.  From the moment we wake up in the morning getting our kids ready for school and ourselves ready for work and then later helping our kids with their homework, getting them to their extra curricular activities, fitting in dinner somewhere in all of the early evening commotion, before we finally even think about doing some chores around the house or relaxing for a minute.  Where can I realistically fit prayer in with my kids during all of this?

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Well, first off – quite frankly – prayer needs to become the priority.  Most of you would agree with this since you’ve chosen to listen to this talk.  But how do you accomplish it?  I’m going to talk about how my parents incorporated prayer into our everyday lives despite an incredibly hectic schedule and how I’ve incorporated prayer into my own family’s day-to-day life.  I’m going to show you that when done in an organic manner, prayer flourishes on its own with little added effort.

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First, I’d like to talk a little bit about the Orthodox view of raising children and education.  Orthodoxy is a way of life.  It isn’t about showing up to church once a week on Sunday and calling our duty fulfilled.  Our faith follows us home, it follows us to school, it follows us to work, and it also follows us on vacation.  St. John Chrysostom tells us that we are to teach our children their faith by leading with example.  Children know what we value in our lives by watching what we do.   We tell our kids how important it is to eat healthy by providing them with healthy foods.  We encourage them to excel in school by checking to make sure their homework is finished and done correctly.  We read them books because we value the knowledge and adventure they will retain from it.  We take them to the doctor when they are sick so we can ensure they will get better.  But do we seek out an Orthodox church on a Sunday while we’re on vacation to show our kids God is a part of our lives regardless where we are in the world?  All of these things tell our kids what we care about – we care about their health, their education, their character – and especially their salvation.  Sister Magdalen tells us that the, “spiritual life is the most precious thing for a child to inherit.” As parents, godparents, aunts, uncles, and clergy – don’t we all hope and pray that our children will turn to God not only in times of need and despair but also in times of prosperity?

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We need to lead by example for our children and to hopefully also be a beacon for fellow Orthodox families.  Let them see that we do not stop being our spiritual selves just because someone has come over for a visit.  Again, Orthodoxy is a way of life.  A little while back my daughter called me on this.  I remember watching my parents making the sign of the cross before putting the car in reverse and driving to our destination.  I don’t remember how old I was, but I was young, and I remember thinking – when I can drive, I’m going to do that too.  It has now become my habit to make the sign of the cross before driving.  Although, I unconsciously thought I ALWAYS made the sign of the cross regardless of who was with me, my daughter pointed out to me when I was driving one day with my husband in the passenger seat that I only make the sign of the cross when it’s just my kids in the car.  She told me I don’t do it if anyone else gets in the car with me.  I started to argue with her but instead stopped myself to think about it for a moment.  She was absolutely right.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized I didn’t want people to think I was afraid of driving or that they should be afraid of my driving so I didn’t make the sign of the cross when they were in the car with me.  My daughter was the one who showed me that I contradicting myself by how I was acting.  Kids know what you value without preaching it to them just by how you live your life day in and day out.

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It has been understood from the earliest of times that we need to teach our children their faith starting in the home.  If the kids are not living it at home, they are not going to learn it in Sunday School during a 45 minute class.

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A teacher may be able to teach a student in her classroom the definition of fasting but if the child is not fasting at home, they do not understand it. Just like a school nurse can come into a classroom at school and teach the kids why brushing your teeth is important, but if they are not brushing their teeth at home, the instruction doesn’t bring them any benefit.

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As we move on into prayer itself within family life, we must ask, “Can a child be taught to pray?”  Prayer is a relationship with God.  It comes sincerely from our heart.  How do you teach that to a baby…a young child…or even a teenager?  We do it through example.  I have heard my mom say, “Children learn to be in church by being in church.”  The same goes for praying.  Children will learn and become familiar with prayer by being around it and praying themselves.  Always include your youngest children, regardless of how small they are, in your prayer rituals.  If you put the baby to bed before saying bedtime prayers with your older children, at what point are you going to say the baby is old enough to be quiet and participate without distracting the rest of the family?   From the time they are very little, they will begin to understand the sincerity and calmness of prayer by being around it.

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My newest niece, Emma, arrived this past December.  My mom shared with me a story about Emma and her older sister, Maddie that occurred at the hospital since I live out of state from them.  Maddie was admiring her very new baby sister when she suddenly turned to my mom and said, “Grandma!  Grandma!  Emma made the Son!”  My mom was a little confused by this and asked Maddie for some clarification.  Maddie looked straight at my mom, pressed her three fingers to her chest and said, “Emma made the Son!”  Emma had momentarily moved her hand and touched her chest and her older sister was convinced her hours old sister was already making the Sign of the Cross.  My mom enthusiastically shared the story with me later that night.  I was left in awe.

It might also help to know that Maddie is two years old.  So not only did Maddie connect that touching your fingers to your chest is part of making the sign of the cross but was also able to visualize and remember what we say when we touch our fingers to our chest – because – she has been around prayer.  It was a natural conclusion for her because prayer is part of who she is.

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I’m going to move on into some practical ways of teaching infants and toddlers how to pray.  Obviously, as an infant, they cannot talk yet – their prayer time with us is much different than it will be when they are walking and talking.

Always include your babies during prayer time in your home.  Babies and toddlers are learning a tremendous about of information through their five senses.  They listen to us praying.  They smell the incense burning at our family altar.  They feel you anointing them with holy water or their hand moving to their forehead, chest, and shoulders as you guide their hand to make the sign of the cross.  They see their family gathered for prayer before the icons.  They taste Holy Communion as we approach the chalice as a family.  These are all important ways to introduce the faith to our babies.  By living our faith, we introduce and familiarize them with their beginning relationship with God.  As I stated earlier, prayer is a relationship with God.  By doing all these things, you are helping to form that relationship between your child and God from infancy.  As they get older, God has been with them their whole life.  It is only natural then for them to begin praying to God as they thank Him and look to Him for comfort and guidance as their relationship with Him deepens.

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Several years ago, my husband and I became foster parents.  It’s a difficult line to walk when you have children living in your home that potentially will be adopted by you later but at the same time might not be.  You ask yourself, “Do I ask them to make the sign of the cross before prayers?  Do I even ask them to say prayers at all?”  In our case, we ended up adopting our three oldest foster sons a few years later and our two youngest foster sons were adopted by our extended family.   My husband and I decided early on to just let the boys be present for our prayer times.  If they mimicked us by making the sign of the cross, we didn’t stop them.  If they started to recite the prayer, we didn’t stop them.  Nor did we ask them to do any of these things.  We were blessed that we were able to develop a good relationship with both sets of birthparents so we felt comfortable to continue walking this fine line of letting the boys be present during our prayer times but not formally teaching them about our faith either.  You’ll see just how interesting this gets as I move on in my talk.

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With one daughter and five boys under the age of five, trust me, I spent my fair share of time outside of the nave taking care of a fussy child.  There was one time in particular where I was getting really frustrated because I drove 45 minutes to get to church for a Lenten evening service just to spend the majority of the time outside the church on the front steps watching one of my boys trying to catch an ant.  It got to the point where I told myself I needed to calm down.  I started saying the Jesus Prayer in my mind and then it came to me that I could teach my 18 month old the same prayer.  I took his hands in mine and let him rock back and forth on his heals and asked him to repeat after me, “Lord…Jesus…Christ…” until we got through the whole prayer.  We did this a couple more times and then I asked him, do you want to keep praying out here with mommy or go back inside and pray with everyone else?  The first time he said, “Outside.”  So he kept repeating after me.  Then I asked him a second time and this time he said he was ready to go inside.  He stayed contently in my arms throughout the rest of that service.

I like to head off tantrums, fussiness, and the wiggles whenever I can – sometimes that’s just not possible and you’ll be trying to crawl over everyone as quickly as possible as they turn and stare at you but most of the time those instances are preventable.  I like to whisper in my little ones ears.  I did this primarily with my kids who were under 2.  I’d ask them various questions depending on what they had in visual range.  “Where’s the icon of Jesus?”  “How many candles do you see?” “Let’s count them.”  This would get them engaged again and only a minute or two of very quiet whispering would renew their ability to stay in church without distracting others.

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Saint John Chrysostom tells us in his writings about raising children that the souls of children are soft and delicate like wax.  If right teachings are impressed upon them from the beginning then, with time, these impressions harden as in the case of waxen seal.  None will be able to undo this good impression.  Malleable things take the form of whatever they are impressed with because they have not yet taken a stable shape.

I started journaling during this time period as a way to relieve some of the stress that accompanies foster care.  What I was able to reflect on later was that it took only 7 weeks for my oldest foster son – who was 3 years old at the time – to completely memorize our meal prayer and also “Christ is Risen” just by listening to us during our prayers.  Shortly after this, we had gone to visit my parents and family out of state.  We were at my sister-in-law’s baby shower when my mom shared a story with me that happened in the other room with my oldest foster son while I was chasing my 2 year-old foster son who was going after his second piece of cake.

My three year old had sat down at an empty table with his plate of food and was quickly joined by several ladies he had never met before nor were any of them Orthodox.  The ladies began eating their food when my son interrupted them and said, “You haven’t said prayers yet.  You can’t eat your food.”  We had never told him he couldn’t eat before praying but he had become accustomed to praying first before eating over the past two months.  They told him they didn’t know any prayers so he told them, “I’ll teach you one.”  And that’s exactly what he did.  He taught these complete strangers to sing Christ is Risen and then they ate their food.

This – is how impressionable our toddlers are to prayer.

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When we surround our babies and toddlers with prayer, they embrace it.  I’ve found with my kids that once they become accustom to praying, whether it’s before a meal, before bed, or any other time – they make it a permanent part of their life and don’t forget to say their prayers regardless if we’re at a restaurant, friends are over, or we’re on vacation.

For example, there are occasions where I have a lot of things going through my mind of what I need to get done as I’m putting food on the table for the kids to eat.  There was one time in particular where I needed to get all of us out the door in a very short amount of time but I also needed to feed the kids before we left.  I gave all the kids a plate of food and absent-mindedly left the room to gather the diaper bag and start looking for the babies’ shoes.  I came back about five minutes later to see not a single one of the kids eating and instead, they were cracking jokes and laughing.  I almost yelled at them to hurry up and eat when it occurred to me that it was really strange not a single one of them was eating.  So, instead I asked them, “why are none of you eating?”  In unison, they told me, “We haven’t said prayers yet.  We are waiting for you.”  I felt bad for getting distracted and they just patiently waited for me to return to say prayers with them.

Another idea is as your kids get a little older, you can teach them to use a prayer rope.  I first introduced my daughter to using a prayer rope when she was 7 or 8.  She was scared to have the lights off in her room at night.  A nightlight was not enough for her.  I brought my prayer rope to her and sat next to her on her bed.  I told her this was my prayer rope which instantly helped because it was like having a part of mom with her and then continued by showing her how to use it.  I told her to say the Jesus Prayer for each knot until she got all the way to the other side.  Inevitably, she always fell asleep before she got to the other side.  I didn’t preach to her to say prayers, I integrated it naturally as the opportunity arose.

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And then there’s the teenage years.  I just want to make a note that the photo you see of my daughter right now is actually quite out of character for her but it does show her teenage side.  I had taken one too many pictures of her while on vacation and I was trying to dramatically apologize to her and it just so happened that someone else in my family took one more additional photo of her.

Before working on this presentation for all of you, I asked my daughter, who is now 16, “Why do you now say additional prayers to God when you’re alone instead of just when we’re all gather for bedtime prayers?”  She told me one of the reasons she says prayers on her own now is because I taught her to use a prayer rope when she was little so she wouldn’t be scared anymore.  She said at that moment when I taught her how to use the prayer rope, she realized that God was there for her no matter what.  Now as a teenager she says it’s just a natural feeling for her to say a prayer when she needs comforting or when she wants to thank God because that’s what she did when she was little.

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Another quick note about the picture.  It had snowed about 6 – 8 inches the night before and my husband was out of town.  It was during Lent last year and Niki had asked me if we were going to the Lenten evening service that night.  I told her no because there was no way my back could handle shoveling our long driveway.  I went and did some laundry to come back to find Niki outside shoveling the driveway through the window.  When we was done, she came inside and asked if we could go to church now.  So, of course, we all got changed and headed off to church.

Going back to teenagers and private prayer – I was curious about something.  I decided to ask Niki’s friends if they prayed, “Do you ever says prayers by yourself?” – referring to currently.  Some said yes.  Some said no.  The ones that said yes, I asked if they grew up saying prayers regularly as a family.  They all said yes.  The ones that said no, I asked if they grew up saying prayers regularly as a family.  They all said no.

Okay – so it’s pretty simple to see that if we say regular prayers as a family when our children are young, it becomes a part of who they are as teenagers.  There’s no preaching or teaching.  At this point, they have started their own journey to a closer relationship with God through private prayer.

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I’ve talked about some ways to incorporate prayer into the lives of our babies, young children, and teenagers.  Now I’d like to talk a little bit about prayer as a family.

There are three main ways we incorporate prayer as a family in our home.  The easiest and most frequent prayer time for us is before any meal we eat together.  The second is bedtime prayers.  And the third is our own family’s once a year tradition of Family Forgiveness Night.

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I grew up saying a prayer before dinner every single night with my family.  It was a natural transition for me to say a prayer before eating with my daughter when she came along.  It was what I did growing up and it became a part of my own parenting.

One of the things I’ve noticed that I inadvertently taught my kids was to wait to eat until we’ve said prayers.  Even though I think this is a great goal for parents, it wasn’t something I had intentionally thought about and planned.  As you can see in the picture, we filled the table.  This was actually our photo to celebrate all our kids were “big kids” now because it was the first meal in 2 years without anyone in a highchair.  Before the boys came along, I would put our meal in the pots or pans I can cooked them in on the table and the three of us would serve ourselves from there. You can imagine the little hands grabbing for food the moment I put it down on the table so I started portioning out food onto plates and serving the kids from oldest to youngest.  This was my way of serving food so no one got burnt.  But the part I didn’t realize is that I would serve the three oldest kids first and then we’d immediately say prayers and then I’d turn around and give the youngest three kids their plates.  Over time, the kids never had the opportunity to get a bite of food in before we said prayers and they learned that we said prayers first before eating.

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My parents said prayers with us almost every night before we crawled into bed.  I remember when my dad taught us how to say the Lord’s Prayer in Greek a few words each night until we all had it memorize a week or two later.  We also prayed for those who were sick, and asked God to take care of us in our time of need.  It was during this time that my own relationship with God started to develop and also taught me how to teach my own kids to pray.

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It’s important to have a family altar in your home where you gather with your family to say prayers.

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Most family altars will have one or more icons, a bible, a prayer book, a candle, and a censer.  Some may be more simple or elaborate than others.

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It’s always important to talk with your priest about your own prayer life and ask for guidance for where you’re at right now.  If you’re just beginning, your prayer time with your kids might be shorter than say another family’s prayer time who have been working on lengthening it with their kids for years.  Don’t compare yourself to them.  Could you walk out the door right this instant and have your entire family (babies and all) running a marathon together side by side.  No way.  You have to start by walking together.  Then you work on distance.  Then you expand to running until you are finally able to finish that marathon together.

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My spiritual father once told me that you have to start at where you’re currently at with prayer.  If all you can do is make the sign of the cross over your children’s forehead as you check on them before going to bed then that’s where you start.  When you feel like you can do more than just bless your children in their sleep then you move on to blessing them with holy water while they are awake every night.  Then you move on to saying a short prayer together in front of your family altar.  Followed by longer prayers together in front of your family altar.  It takes time.  It takes patience.

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In our home, prayer time has grown over the years to last about 10 – 20 minutes each night.  We start by lighting candles and incense in the censer.  We have not upgraded the boys to matches yet so generally our teenager, my husband, or myself will light those.  The boys love to run around the main floor of the house and turn off all the lights before we begin to pray.

We use our candles we receive at Pascha each year until they run out and then we replace them with tapers until the following Pascha.  I especially love having all six candles lit when my husband is out of town on a business trip.  It makes me feel like he is with us during our prayer time even when he’s miles and miles away from us.

Next we say a prayer from one of our prayer books or sing a hymn we learned in school followed by our own individual prayers.  We take turns and we always go from youngest to oldest.  We don’t prompt the little ones with what to say.  We have learned that more often than not they copy what we say in some fashion anyway from a previous night’s prayers.  The very first time one of our boy’s mimicked us, my husband and I exchanged amused looks and tried not to giggled.  Our son had just said in his prayers, “Let mom be a better husband and let dad be a better wife.”  Now, we hear our kids say things like, “Help me to be more patience, kind, and loving to my brothers and sister and mom and dad.” Which really isn’t something you expect a 5, 7, or 8 year old to say on their own but it truly comes from their heart even though they heard us say it first some days before.  We let each child say as much as they want to say and we know they are done when they say Amen.  Actually “Amen” is what we started the boys out with when they were babies.  We started prayer time with the youngest then too and included them even if they couldn’t talk.  If they couldn’t talk, whoever was holding the baby looked at him and said “Amen” on his behalf.  When they were old enough to copy a word, we taught them to say nothing more than Amen.  So I take that back, the only time we prompted the kids was when we taught them to say, “Amen” and it is an unspoken understood between all of us now that “Amen” means I’m done saying what I wanted to say to God and it’s the next person’s turn.

Another natural growth in our prayer time was blessing each other with holy water before blowing out candles.  One of our boys asked to bless us with the holy water we had just received from Father at church.  Now it is a part of our nightly prayers because the kids love dipping their thumb in the holy water, making the sign of the cross over one of our foreheads while saying, “God bless you.”

One other thing before I move on the next topic.  I heard a Presvytera telling a group of parents at a retreat not long ago that she used a photo album with pictures of family, friends, and godparents.  She would let her children who could not read yet flip through the pages of the album and verbally remember each person individually in their prayer.  I thought this was a wonderful way for children to actively be a part of the intercessory prayers without having to prompt them with what to say.  Your kids will absolutely amaze and uplift you with the prayers that pass through their lips.

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I want to wrap up my talk with a little tradition my family has come to embrace and cherish over the past few years.  Several years ago we were not able to attend Forgiveness Sunday Vespers.  If you’ve never been to this vespers, it is a wonderful service where you approach each person individually in the church and ask them to forgive you.  I really wanted my kids to participate in this service but we were just not able to go that year.  We were still in the beginning stages of developing our prayer time with the boys but I really wanted to have us ask each other for forgiveness before we dived into Lent.

We told the kids we were going to say sorry to each other for anything we may have done to hurt each other’s feelings or to be not nice to teach other.  Then we’d finish by saying “Please forgive me.”  Again, we started with the youngest first and just passed him around to each person for a hug because he was only 17 months old.  I don’t know that my husband and I really had any expectations out of that night other than to literally say, “I’m sorry” and “Please forgive me” from the kids.  Our three year old was the first to surprise us with his sincerity and depth of his request.  He hugged his two younger brothers and then turned to his older brother and said he was sorry for hitting him and please forgive him.  Then he turned to his sister and asked her to forgive him for sneaking into her room and taking her stuff.  He turned to me and then my husband and asked us to forgive him for throwing tantrums.

Obviously, both Les and myself were very touched by this but it was nothing compared to what was about to come from our four year old.  My four year old hugged his baby brothers, faced his younger brother and then his sister and asked them to specifically forgive him for several things.  Then…he turned to me.  He looked me straight in the eyes and began to cry.  Not sobs.  Not tantrums.  Just quiet sincere tears.  I lost it before he ever said a word.  He asked me to forgive him for some very specific things he had done to get back at me when I told him no.  Oh. My. Goodness.  I’m was crying at this point, my daughter is crying at this point, and Les is choked up with tears welling up in his eyes.  The rest of us asked each other for forgiveness in between sobs.   It has now become a permanent tradition in our family to have Family Forgiveness Night on Forgiveness Sunday because of the closeness that has developed between us by asking each other for forgiveness.

4 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing these personal reflections, Jennifer!

  2. This was really wonderful. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Wow,thank you for sharing this. This is beautiful. I really love that you light candles each night and that you do it all as a family. We say bedtime prayers with the boys each individually (4,3 and almost 2), but found it was too crazy with them all at once. Any suggestions?

    • We would hold the squirmy one(s) each night – and it wasn’t necessarily the youngest each time either. We also started out with a very short prayer followed by each child praying for anything (or anyone) they wanted which made them an active participant. It was short. We didn’t expect them to be completely still but if they started running around the room, climbing on the bed, or something like that then we’d calmly tell them, “This is prayer time, we need to be respectful” and we’d pull them next to us and hold our arm around them. The key is it really needs to be short. You can lengthen it with time as they are ready for it. If it’s still too crazy, I’d shorten it even more. Once you can get through your prayer time without feeling like you just put on a circus show, that’s where you can stop shortening it. Just keep it there for a little while. When you feel like they can handle a little more, add some other small aspect.

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